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STANLEY KRAMER’S THE DEFIANT ONES

February 19, 2013  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones
Tony Curtis Sidney Poitier The Defiant Ones. 1958. Directed by Stanley Kramer

Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones. 1958. USA. Directed by Stanley Kramer

These notes accompany screenings of Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones on February 20, 21, and 22 in Theater 3.

I don’t think Stanley Kramer (1913–2001) would be too indignant about being labeled more a producer than a director. Although he took credit for directing 20 films, it might be hard to make a case for him having a truly artistic bent, aside from his ability to get some really good and dependable actors to accept roles in his films. Rather, Kramer’s contribution seems to me to lie more in being a conscience of America during a time of considerable anxiety and turmoil. Many great directors (F. W. Murnau, Josef von Sternberg, Max Ophuls, Carl Th. Dreyer, Buster Keaton, to name a few) had little interest in politics, much less in saving the world. Charles Chaplin, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and others did deal with contemporary issues, but their personalities and style (in other words, their artistry) tended to override their immediacy. Kramer, however, took strong stands against the Holocaust, racial prejudice, ignorant rednecks, and nuclear war, and the artistry was almost incidental. In the process, he did manage to have a successful and lucrative career.

Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones. 1958. USA. Directed by Stanley Kramer

Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones. 1958. USA. Directed by Stanley Kramer

The Defiant Ones, only his third film as a director, was made a full decade after he had become a producer. The film’s statement of racial equality was fairly shocking for a Hollywood release at the height of the Civil Rights movement, and it must have entailed some degree of chutzpah and courage on Kramer’s part. The film was scheduled in our series only coincidentally during Black History Month, but it was, nevertheless, a significant milestone in Hollywood’s painfully slow efforts to transcend the legacy of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (itself 98 years old last week.) Sidney Poitier (along with his great buddy, Harry Belafonte) had already opened up new opportunities for African American actors in films like Blackboard Jungle, Edge of the City, and Something of Value—opportunities that had been denied to great performers like Bill Robinson and Paul Robeson. (Interestingly, Poitier made his film debut, albeit uncredited, in 1947, the year Jackie Robinson was Rookie of the Year for the Dodgers.) A Raisin the Sun, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and dozens more lay ahead, although one wishes he had won his Oscar for something other than the too-precious Lilies of the Field. Poitier’s success also helped to open the door for future auteurs like Melvin Van Peebles, Spike Lee, and Charles Burnett, whose career we honored a few years ago.

A word of praise, too, for the late Tony Curtis—then in his transition from pretty-boy juvenile to serious actor—who, no doubt, took risks by accepting the role that was turned down by Marlon Brando. As Poitier said later, The Defiant Ones “disturbed a lot of people…and informed them.” Curtis was nominated for an Oscar, and the role clearly didn’t have a negative effect on his career. My impression is that, although he did good deeds, Curtis was not one to toot his own horn. When he graciously volunteered to come to New York for our Alexander Mackendrick (Sweet Smell of Success, Don’t Make Waves) retrospective, Curtis was less interested in serious subjects than in regaling one with the story of how the costumer on Some Like It Hot (screening here as part of The Weimar Touch in April) had pinched both his backside and that of Marilyn Monroe, and pronounced Curtis’s to be superior.

Stanley Kramer was aware that he had probably defined himself too rigidly as a deliverer of “the message film.” As he said, “I would like to express myself a little more simply and, if you will, artistically.” Still, all those Oscars are hard to argue with, and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World demonstrated that Kramer was no Mack Sennett. When it came to ending the world in On the Beach, however, nobody did it better.

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